Zen and the Art of Science in Fiction

Posted on Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 at 13:44

I was mooching about the internet and was pointed at this post on Rosie Oliver’s blog about the state of science-fiction today (but initially didn’t read it as it wasn’t what I was looking for), then read this one on MG Mason’s blog, and tried to make a quick comment that grew out of control, then MG went and reblogged Rosie – so I had to read it (synchronicity insisted), I thought about just posting a quick comment on Rosie’s blog, but decided maybe I should make my own post instead. Settle in this is gonna get big… but as usual I’ll try and keep it funny.

Fantasy and Science-Fiction?

When you go into a book store or browse books online you’ll often find “Science-Fiction & Fantasy” or “Speculative Fiction” as a catch-all genre – something to compete with Romance, or Horror (although Horror is just another flavour of Speculative Fiction).

At the moment, thanks to many factors, Fantasy is far and away the largest and most commercially successful camp (of the two) and science-fiction seems to be in decline (this was one of the reasons my first series The Paradox War appears to blend hard science-fiction with fantasy — at least until the final book).

Science-Fiction can appear quite popular — when you look beyond books, into video games and movies, but actually most of this content isn’t science-fiction, it is the sub-genre of “Sci-Fi”. Sci-Fi isn’t just an abbreviation, it is science-fiction’s good-looking, but academically-challenged cousin, born from the absurd (but often fun) “Space-Opera” sub-genre, and the experimental (often just plain wacky) “Science-Fantasy”. Naive, uneducated and often incoherent, Sci-Fi riffs on the themes created by science-fiction, to create fantasy tales with engineering tropes, and while there are a few gems, and a few true science-fiction novels and movies out there, most of the product available is just, well… stupid.

Jar Jar Binks...

Well, maybe not that stupid…

Fantasy on the other hand is enjoying a golden age, not just in terms of book sales (where they are actually outselling Thrillers and are challenging Crime novels for the second place after Romance [ignoring the fact that some Romance tales are clearly Fantasy stories, and vice-versa]), on TV, and in the movies too, but actually in terms of what the writers are doing with the genre.

Fantasy is expanding, series are getting longer, trilogies are no longer big enough to tell these stories, with fantasy tales filling Epics and Cycles (in the sense of Cyclopedian constructions?) or Mega-Novels that roll on through volume after volume, of subtle political intrigue, murders and dragons, never seeming to finish, until the Author finally gets filed in the great library in the sky (and even then…)

Someone might add to it later.

There are people calling for this to end, but publishers are only going to invest in writers that they can project success for, and if everyone sees ‘Game of Thrones’ as the pinnacle of modern storytelling then expect to see a lot of knock-off fantasy that rolls on through ten or twelve volume series, as long as the sales stay high.

Readers themselves don’t help, with some not wanting to read the first book of a series until at least book four is out, and also not wanting individual volumes to be too big, a lot of readers like comfortable characters that they know, which I feel explains the popularity of Crime fiction and Thrillers series as well. This is understandable, readers are emotionally invested in good books, they care deeply about these fictional beings and worlds, and in Fantasy (particularly epic fantasy) the readers have always expected a lot of content. In fact the mythopeic nature of fantasy mimics actual mythology, and may in fact be an ersatz religious text for some readers

Not that science-fiction hasn’t tried that too… I won’t even mention the other one…

But there are other forces at play here.

Is Science Cool? A Brief History

After WWII science was cool. The war had made heroes of backroom boffins and while we didn’t get to hear many of their incredible tales immediately due to the Top Secret nature of their contributions, a few stories leaked out.

Mostly this science was engineering based; practical science, chemistry, and physics saw huge boosts in students and everyone had the idea that science was going to perfect human life.

Look at the science-fiction that emerged during and after the war period. It is filled with optimism about the future, with mankind racing out into space. Plots and stories based on Gizmo’s and problems that (unlikely seeming as they may be today) Chemist/Lead Quarterback style protagonists must solve.

A generation later the children that had read those stories in science magazines were building the first interplanetary space-craft and walking on the moon. Science was flying high, and science-fiction was the kite’s tail. In stories, novels and TV shows, we were reaching out to the stars, discovering strange new cultures and exploring them.

Science-fiction began to change with these new Fantasy story tropes, Psionics appearing as an ersatz magic, stories about gadgets and problem solving gave way to stories about the characters that waved gadgets to solve problems.

Day of the Doctor

A trend that continues to this day, although occasionally lampshaded for laughs.

The hybrid genre of Science-Fantasy emerged around this time, as the real science of space-travel was revealed to be a little more complicated, less exciting and a lot more expensive than the early science-fiction authors had hoped.

Science-Fantasy was filled with strange alternate dimensions and was a mash-up of science-fiction, fantasy and horror that owed more to Lovecraft, Weird Tales and Psychedelia than Clark, Asimov or Einstein. Add to that the our probes to the planets had failed to find any trace of the Venusian or Martian civilizations that we had fantasised lived there, and things were starting to look bad for science-fiction.

By now Science was expanding too, it had become impossible for a scientist (or writer) to keep abreast of everything in their field, specialisation was everywhere, creating more science jobs and a booming science economy. Science grew and expanded. Theoretical Physicists developed scientific loopholes that could allow FTL, and the wormhole (and its stargate and hyper-space variants) let science-fiction expand out into the universe, and allowed some hard science-fiction at the time to explore the effects of time-dilation and hyper-relativistic time-travel. Then this happened:

opening sequence of star wars episode iv

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…. That changed sci-fi forever

Star Wars was ridiculous space-opera (star-destroyers, death stars), merged with science-fantasy (it has space-wizards, a black knight, weird beasts, mono-biome fantasy worlds, and magic swords), but with a grittiness and used feel to the props, locations and space-ships, that gave the impossible a veneer of plausibility, that redefined science-fiction and created modern sci-fi in one go. Sci-fi was the suddenly coolest thing in the world, and science-fiction and science both reaped the benefits. There was a surge in scientists once more, especially in the fields of computer science.

R2D2 and C3PO

Which might have had a little bit to do with these two…

And that surge in interest in computers, combined with the disillusionment that people were feeling for real space-travel, which didn’t involve stars going whoosh behind you, along with that gritty ‘realism’ that Star Wars sold seemed to grow into the Cyberpunk movement (although I suppose the urban realism of film noire, 70s punk and gang culture, and proto-cyberpunk movies like Bladerunner shouldn’t be overlooked here). The dark, urban science-fiction of the 80s and 90s was filled with computers, matrixes, networks, data-grids and street level protagonists who couldn’t generally afford to live in orbit, or often the best prosthetic upgrades.

Cyberpunk was of its time though, and before we knew it half the genre was obsolete as computers redefined western society. What had started as a weapon of war, had become garden wall for gossiping over. There’s no mention of social media in Cyberpunk, no kitten pics, youtube fail vids, or cracked.com, so no wonder it just seems wrong and dystopian these days, and most of the writers didn’t understand Moore’s Law which didn’t help. And while social media is cool, the science that brings it to us isn’t. The gadgets and apps are cool, and the companies that make them have hipster-deity status, but the science that underpins the modern world, well, unless the secret of space-time manipulation is reliant on the chemical interactions of carbonated water and peppermint infused sugar crystals, then science is less cool now than it was ten years ago.

Then again, if you look at the figures, more students today are studying sciences than ever before,  it seems, science, it can be argued (usually by government types) has never been more popular. Only, not all science is equal. Physics, Chemistry, Maths (which isn’t a science, but is the language of science), and even Computer Science are seeing dwindling numbers of students. Where as Sports Science, Political Science (a subset of sociology) and Economics have grown incredibly in the last decade, ‘soft’ sciences draw the vast majority of “science” students, and science-fiction suffers for that.

The Wolf of Wall Street

No matter how much Economics is a science, this is not Science-Fiction…

There is another related problem, and its one that some people will not be happy with me mentioning (so please don’t tell them).

It Helps To Know Science If You Write Science-Fiction

I think its true, but then I trained as a Physicist before ‘post-grad’ing in Computer Sciences and Multimedia Design… The best science-fiction from down the years has usually been written by people who had some experience working as a scientist, engineer, or in a related field (yes, journalism and medicine count).

Early on they all were at it, you practically weren’t allowed to write science-fiction unless you had a degree (or better yet doctorate) in at least one science, or had designed your own house, aeroplane and motorcar, ideally both. They understood the scientific method (always handy when your protagonist is a scientist).

I mean, this makes sense, it is going to be easier to put science in fiction if you know some science. It also meant that when a character in a story stated a science-based factoid, it represented the state of human knowledge in that field at that time (even if the sentence started with “As you know, Bob…” ), because it was written by either an expert in that field, or just someone who knew the importance of accurate research.

Although some look pretty silly with hindsight.

Later this became less important, writers were fans of science-fiction itself, they were taught their science by the stories they read. Protagonists were less likely to be scientists themselves (secondary characters might be, even the villain – which might have had an effect on science students…). Writers still felt that fact checking and that sort of thing was important. It was still worth knowing that neither light-years nor parsecs were a measure of time, for example. Oh sure, movies played fast and loose with this sort of thing from time to time, but writers still checked facts.

Then it stopped. Suddenly,  at some point (I think the mid-70s) some writers (including journalists) just stopped checking facts properly. Even now the internet, where any fact can be verified (at least to wiki-fact level) by a quick Google, only seems to compound this problem.

It’s not universal, of course, but a lot of science in science-fiction started being guess-timated, misrepresented, or was just plain wrong. Most writers weren’t reading science journals, or even classic science-fiction, anymore. Sci-fi had taken over, hand-waving and half-remembered dialogue from sci-fi movies and comic books began to replace real science in stories.

Sometimes these stories were still good, the actual science unimportant enough to not affect the outcome, other times the result is a tortuous mess, jarring the reader from the story with every misapplied concept or term.

It is a trend that continues today. Only now it turns out that some of the scientists are doing the exact same thing (not that this is exactly a new thing).

Is Science-Fiction Dead?

I don’t think so, at least not yet, and probably not ever. I think something more interesting is happening. That in order to write new and interesting stories authors are combining the best bits of science-fiction and fantasy together.

Science-Fiction (and the science) gets dumbed down sometimes in the mix and made more fantastic, but another way of looking at it is that the worlds of Fantasy are getting more technological, political and smarter.

The late, great Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a prime example, often overlooked as fantasy or science-fiction because they are funny, the books take a world that was a fairly standard medieval fantasy universe* and over the series add more and more technology to the universe (technology that early on relied on Flintstone-esque tricks to get them working in the high magic world). As more tech arrived, and stories took darker, grittier and more politically evolved (and funnier) turns, the eventual result is probably one of the major unseen influencers on “Steampunk”. *with funny** world-building*** footnotes. **or at least amusing. *** which is not easy on a rotating, slightly moist disc, carried by giant elephants on the shell a humongous space turtle.

Steampunk was definitely an off-shoot of science-fiction, beginning as an alternative reality that could blend cyberpunk with historical fiction and looked back at the history of science-fiction (like HG Wells’ and Jules Verne’s tales), but it quickly mutated, becoming a new-blend of science-fiction (sometimes hard engineering with detailed mechanical solutions, sometimes sci-fi like death-rays) and fantasy (swords and fencing, mythic creatures), throw in a bit of horror (undeath, demonology), or the occult (in the form of Alchemy, perhaps) and you have a whole new genre to tell stories in (and the cosplay opportunities?!). My own take on it, “Ironmaster & Other Tales” is available now ;D.

The current flush of fantasy films has undoubtedly added to the appeal of fantasy novels. Blockbusters like Lord of the Rings, How To Train Your Dragon, Harry Potter, and latterly The Hobbit — as well as Game of Thrones — have pushed fantasy into the public eye, making it part of pop culture.

Meanwhile, old science-fiction is being rebooted into sci-fi spectacular in ‘Star Trek’ and its sequels. Dumbed down from the original (not exactly high-brow) source, made more comic-book to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the box office. The science-fantasy of “Episode VII” is just on the horizon too, and a ‘Bladerunner’ sequel seems to be raising its head (although without a Philip K Dick story to simplify, who can say what that will be like). Who knows, maybe as the fantasy land-rush dies away and Hollywood tries looking at the Science-Fiction Authors again for new IPs, those who hang fast to their hard science-fiction convictions will experience a boom once again. Perhaps there’s a reason why the publishers keep that Science-Fiction and Fantasy category…